hiking the Appalachian Trail
(first appeared at valterramagazines.com on 2/1/2014)
I’m not sure what I thought hiking entailed. It seems easy enough when you think about it, one foot in front of the other as gorgeous scenery unfolds in front of you. When it was suggested to me that I join a few of my friends for a few days of hiking along the Appalachian Trail I thought nothing of giving the idea a rousing thumbs up. While not in tremendous shape, it never occurred to me that it would require anything more than a small dose of physical fitness. If things got a bit dicey I could always grab a walking stick. To make sure I left nothing to chance I even dragged out a pair of hiking boots I’d purchased a few years back when I was threatened with a similar activity. I found them on a discount rack at a discount store for $12. I’d never worn them but they certainly looked like the type of footwear I’d seen on rugged mountain men in antiperspirant commercials.
Were you aware that to even get on the Appalachian Trail requires a hike of several miles? Most of it uphill in the kind of rocky territory that is usually home to those goats that you see standing sideways on mountains whose tops are typically covered in fog banks?
I was not aware of that.
I had gone no further than a hundred yards when I began to realize that my $12 hiking boots were not going to be up to the challenge. With apologies to Nancy Sinatra, these boots were not made for walking.
And when I say “trail” I mean it in only the loosest meaning of the word. Whereas I was expecting cheerful signs every few feet what I saw before me was a few trees with a small splash of fading orange or completely faded orange markings on them separated by at least ten thousand other trees. It was like playing Where’s Waldo if Waldo had gone into a Witness Protection program and had been told to lose the red and white striped shirt, ditch the glasses and dye his hair blonde.
Another thing I noticed as we began our climb was my friend’s legs. They looked like pencils with oranges protruding where their calf muscles should have been. I looked down at my legs and saw two pencils with absolutely nothing where my calf muscles should be. I won’t even bother describing their thighs … except to say that they wouldn’t have looked entirely out of place on the average Greek statue. You know the kind I’m talking about, the type where some hero or other is hoisting some heavy object over their head or wrestling a lion or whatnot.
We weren’t twenty minutes in and the good-natured ribbing- at my expense of course- began. The sun had barely crept over the horizon on day one of a three day hike and already I could taste blood in my mouth.
Blood and despair.
I began a steady stream of lamentations under my breath as I realized that it would be at least another mile of uphill climbing before we actually reached the “beginning” of our hike. Quietly I cursed the birds and wished terrible things upon my friends. If only one of them would trip and tumble down the hill and break their spine I could save face and end this debacle.
But it was not to be. Cruel fate kept my friends safe and upbeat and I continued to hurl obscenities at any creature that had the misfortune of appearing in front of me. Walking sticks, despite what you might have seen in the movies, are of no help at all.
It was noon when we took our first break.
My friends threw off their packs and attended to their feet like an experienced Indy pit crew. They each stripped off the two pairs of socks they were wearing and nonchalantly applied baby powder to each foot as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
I took off my boots and my single pair of 100% Rayon socks to find that the soles of each foot were covered from heel to toe with a giant blister. It appeared that my feet were enormous and had the consistency of bubble wrap.
Miles away birds flew in great flocks, startled by the noise I made when I popped the first blister. Popping the second foot had my friends looking away and having silent conversations with their respective deities. Had there been a bear within a hundred miles the smell of blood and pus would have had him running towards us with all gusto.
I wrapped my feet with my own blister-skin and trudged onward.
It was only eight hours later that we arrived at our camp for the evening. The hours literally flew by, in a way that I imagine only the hikers involved in the Bataan Death March could relate to. The only break I got from the searing pain of each foot hitting the ground was the occasional leg cramp.
I had eaten my three-days’ worth of provisions before noon so I was at the mercy of friends and their ridiculous freeze-dried dinners. The fact that they were all openly wishing I would hurry up and die of pus-loss and despair made my leverage in negotiating what I could borrow from their ample packs limited at best. What I ended up with was a pouch of “Southwest Chili.” On the cover of the packet was a smiling chili pepper. Given my feeble intestinal fortitude I would typically avoid such spicy fare but such was the depths of my hunger that I happily snatched it up and threw it on the campfire. Moments later, the hot water barely soaked into the pepper-ridden powder, I wolfed it all down.
As the sun set all the creatures of the forest were treated to the noises coming from my stomach. I could clearly make out the sounds of gringos galloping down my small intestine, all the while whooping and firing their pistols into the air. My face was a red mask of sweat as I inquired where the bathrooms were. It was then I was introduced to the concept of a composting toilet. Compost, from the Greek “can be smelled for miles.” I was pointed down a narrow trail and told that at the end of this was what I sought.
As I walked further from camp I began to get a whiff that I was headed in the right direction. There were no animals here. No insects chirped. The only noise I could hear was the buzzing of flies.
When I finally arrived I seriously considered taking off one of what remained of my $6 hiking boot ($12/2) and beating myself to death with it as opposed to sitting on the filth-encrusted hole that sat before me. That’s when the “Southwest Chili” made the decision for me.
I shat with a force that had me looking between my legs to see if any of my spine had been cast out with the “Southwest Chili.”
Even the flies left.
I realized I had no toilet paper.
I began to weep.
Eventually I made my way back to camp and found a spot to lay out my sleeping bag. Above my head there were at least a dozen spiders the size of my fist, sitting in their web and watching me with undisguised avarice.
I didn’t care.
In the distance I heard my friends talking and laughing with a few other hikers who had made their way to the structure. They were giving each other trail names. I sat in the dark and decided I’d like to be called Strider. I was about to make my way over to the fire when I heard them give me the moniker Shit For Brains.
I stayed where I was.
A few hours later I heard them make their way inside the wooden structure and soon after I could hear them all snoring. My feet hurt too much to sleep so I decided to rid myself of what little moisture I still had in me by weeping again. Occasionally I would slip into a fevered hallucination where the smiling chili pepper would laugh and poke me with a fiery pitchfork.
The next morning my friends set off without me.
**The journal ends here. The identity and fate of the author remains a mystery and part of Appalachian Trail folklore.**